Connect with us

General

The Muppets pay tribute to Jim Henson

JHM guest columnist Chris Barry concludes his series on the time he spent interning at the Jim Henson Company by recalling his experiences during the production of a tribute special.

Published

on


Picking up where Chris left off last week …

As the Jim Henson memorial service ended and we followed the Dirty Dozen Brass Band to the back of that magnificent cathedral in upper Manhattan, we were all feeling emotionally drained. The service was a rare moment in time. A legend was honored that day, by an outpouring of love, song, and “Muppetational” good feelings. I felt honored to have been asked to be there with the company, considering my status as a college intern. After the service, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one wondering, “What now?”

The phone call came a month or so later as I was beginning to panic over my lack of employment. Apparently, there were some projects happening back at the Jim Henson production studio on 67th street. The question posed to me by my old intern supervisor was, “Would you like to come work for us for awhile?” I’m sure she could feel my smile beaming through the wires as I enthusiastically accepted.

There were two projects that were about to start production in NY. The first was a Muppet Sing-Along home video featuring a cast of all new Muppet characters and after that the tribute special, “The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson.” The latter was to air on CBS the night before Thanksgiving of that year. My internship was special. The chance to meet and speak to Jim was now even more precious to me since his death. Now I would actually get to see the Muppet magic happen. I would get to see all the Muppeteers perform their craft and more importantly, I would get to help them do it.

Copyright The Jim Henson Company / The Walt Disney Company

Billy Bunny’s Animal Songs” was a Muppet Sing-Along home video aimed at a very young demographic. It was meant to teach kids about different animals as the lead character, Billy, sings his way through the forest. Billy Bunny, performed by Muppeteer Kevin Clash (best known for Elmo) runs across a swamp full of very Kermit-like frogs, a cave full of rapping Bears and a sultry singing porcupine. Veteran Muppeteers Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt and Fran Brill played a variety of animals scattered throughout the forest. There was even an appearance by the ubiquitous Muppet penguin. The animals were cute, the songs were memorable and overall it was a pretty unique bit of Muppet history as none of the major characters were featured in this video. Perhaps the plans were to expand this character in the future. Amazon.com lists this video’s release date as 1993. Considering we shot this in 1990, it’s quite odd that this took 3 years to release and then Billy quietly disappeared.

Watching the Muppet crew work their magic was a dream come true. I had seen Jim’s many “behind the scenes” specials, but it was great to walk onto that stage and see the Muppet’s raised sets. The sets were raised, of course, to allow the Muppeteers to walk around below and puppeteer their characters out of sight of the cameras. The atmosphere on the set was very loose, very informal, and at times improvisational. If things in the script weren’t working, these veteran performers stopped and figured things out. They knew each other so well and trusted each other’s instincts, and yet were open to newcomer’s suggestions as well. To this day, I have yet to see such a democratic attitude on a television set. There was no pecking order. The end result was most important. As long as the work was quality, it didn’t matter how they got it that way. The camera guy’s suggestion was as valued as the veteran performer’s, which was as valued as the lowly production assistant. This meant for a long shoot, but a very satisfying one all the same. Jim Henson’s spirit of fairness and artistry were completely evident in his extended family.

Copyright The Jim Henson Company

When Billy Bunny had wrapped, work began on the tribute special. Most of my time during pre-production was spent assisting the editor as he poured through the Henson library, compiling footage for several different montages to be featured throughout the special. Here I came across box after box of tapes containing rarely seen shows and segments from Muppet history. Original reels from Jim’s early days producing Wilkins’s coffee commercials, his early experimental films, “Timepiece” and “The Cube” and segments form the UK versions of “The Muppet Show” never seen in the US before, were just a sampling of the treasures we’d uncover every day. On one shelf in the photo studio I came across a binder the size of a phone book filled with Polaroids of every Muppet featured in “The Dark Crystal.” What an astounding example of Jim’s endless and limitless creativity this was. It was a page-turner for sure.

Copyright The Jim Henson Company

These montages were to be framed by interviews with the likes of Carol Burnett, John Denver, Stephen Spielberg and Frank Oz. When I found out I would be working on the only interview to be taped in New York, I wondered which it would be. Much to my joy and surprise it turned out to be Ray Charles. Ray spoke about “Bein’ Green” and how it was an example of Jim’s message to all of us to love one another for who we were. Ray’s version of “Green” is still my favorite.

Copyright The Jim Henson Company / The Walt Disney Company

Once these montages were complete, it was time for the Muppet segments to be produced. I watched as the stage was transformed into a backstage set closely resembling the set from The Muppet Show. As taping day approached, I realized that basically every person in Jim’s extended family would be convening on this stage in the next few days. The premise was that Kermit was away traveling and in his absence the Muppets were supposed to prepare for a tribute to Jim Henson. The Muppets, however, could not figure out who this Jim Henson guy was. They set about to learn all they could about this guy Jim and create a suitable tribute to him. As things fell deeper and deeper into typical Muppet chaos, they become disillusioned with their efforts, which included Gonzo’s friend Whoopee Cushions, the tap dancing whoopee cushion and a team of singing accountants. In the end, the Muppets find that if they only believe in themselves, they’ll find the right path.

We worked long days, sometimes 15-16 hours, trying to get all the Muppet segments completed. I got to see Frank Oz perform Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy, Dave Goelz perform Gonzo the Great and watch as Carrol Spinney put on the Big Bird costume. Bird’s costume was complete with an eyepiece connected to a camera in Bird’s eye to allow Carrol to see where he was going. The technology and the artistry was staggering. My primary responsibility was to run wires and small monitors to each Muppeteer, to allow them to view their performance as they puppeteered. It was amazing to see how complex “wiggling the dollies” really was.

As I watched and learned, I realized something about what was going on around me. This was the first time that the core performers were on a set together since Jim’s death. They had performed at the memorial service, but this was home, a soundstage. This was a difficult time for all of them for sure, but their belief in the work got them through it.

Copyright The Jim Henson Company / The Walt Disney Company

The last scene taped had the Muppets discovering that this person Jim Henson who they were honoring had indeed died. As they read actual letters from children and from fans expressing their sorrow over the loss of Jim, the set was eerily silent. Fozzie scrapped the production number, and declared that they were unfit to do a tribute to someone as important as Jim Henson. Kermit’s nephew, Robin (performed by veteran Jerry Nelson) began to sing The Muppet’s signature song, “Just One Person.” The stage filled with Muppets and virtually every Muppeteer in Jim’s “family.” At the emotional climax of the song, Kermit walks in and for the first time ever Muppeteer Steve Whitmire’s voice and hands were performing the frog. To my knowledge this was the first time any of the Muppeteers had seen this. There was only one take and Kermit promised that there would be lot’s more Muppet stuff to come because, “..that’s the way the boss would’ve wanted it.”

Copyright The Jim Henson Company / The Walt Disney Company

As the director yelled cut, I watched this family have the closure they so badly needed. They all collapsed in each other’s arms in tears and closed one long, beautiful chapter in their oh so fortunate lives. There was, however, a strong feeling that hopefully a new and equally wonderful chapter was about to begin.

After that special, things came to a halt at the Jim Henson Company as they slowly settled in to life without their leader and began to ask the big question, “What now?” My time spent on the east side of Manhattan in 1990, with a strange assortment of foam characters, and an equally intriguing group of humans had come to an end. It was, as I said at the beginning of this series, a brief but eventful tenure. As I left the studios on 67th street, marked only with the old ha! logo (Henson Associates) above the door, the final lines of “The Muppet Movie” were ringing in my head.

Life’s like a movie, write your own ending

Keep believing…keep pretending

We’ve done just what we’ve set out to do

Thanks to the lovers…the dreamers…and you!

It was a sad walk to the subway that last day, but my movie wasn’t over. To this day I keep believing and I keep pretending and I’m thankful to all the lovers and dreamers and most of all…Jim Henson…I’m thankful to you.

Copyright The Jim Henson Company / The Walt Disney Company

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

General

Jens Dahlmann of LongHorn Steakhouse has lots of great tips when it comes to grilling

Published

on

Listen to the Article

Sure, for some folks, the Fourth of July is all about fireworks. But for the 75% of all Americans who own a grill or a smoker, the Fourth is our Nation’s No. 1 holiday when it comes to grilling. Which is why 3 out of 4 of those folks will spend some time outside today working over a fire.

But here’s the thing: Though 14 million Americans can cook a steak with confidence because they actually grill something every week, the rest of us – because we use our grill or smoker so infrequently … Well, let’s just say that we have no chops when it comes to dealing with chops (pork, veal or otherwise).

So what’s a backyard chef supposed to in a situation like this when there’s so much at steak … er … stake? Turn to someone who really knows their way around a grill for advice. People like Jens Dahlmann, the Vice President and Corporate Executive Chef for Darden Restaurant’s LongHorn Steakhouse brand.

Given that Jens’ father & grandfather were chefs, this is a guy who literally grew up in a kitchen. In his teens & twenties, Dahlmann worked in hotels & restaurants all over Switzerland & Germany. Once he was classically trained in the culinary arts, Jens then  jumped ship. Well, started working on cruise ships, I mean.

Anyway … While working on Cunard’s Sea Goddess, Dahlmann met Sirio Maccioni, the founder of Le Cirque 2000. Sirio was so impressed with Jens’ skills in the kitchen that he offered him the opportunity to become sous-chef at this New York landmark. After four years of working in Manhattan, Dahlmann then headed south to become executive chef at Palm Beach’s prestigious Café L’Europe.

Jens Dahlmann back during his Disney World days

And once Jens began wowing foodies in Florida, it wasn’t all that long ’til the Mouse came a-calling. Mickey wanted Dahlmann to shake things up in the kitchen over at WDW’s Flying Fish Café. And he did such a good job with that Disney’s Boardwalk eatery the next thing Jens knew, he was then being asked to work his magic with the menu at the Contemporary Resort’s California Grill.

From there, Dahlmann had a relatively meteoric rise at the Mouse House. Once he became Epcot’s Food & Beverage general manager, it was only a matter of time before he wound up as the executive chef in charge of this theme park’s annual International Food & Wine Festival. Which – under Jens’ guidance – experienced some truly explosive growth.

“When I took on Food & Wine, that festival was only 35 days long and had gross revenues of just $5.5 million. When I left Disney in 2016, Food & Wine was now over 50 days long and that festival had gross revenues of $22 million,” Dahlmann admitted during a recent sit-down. “I honestly loved those 13 years I spent at Disney. When I was working there, I learned so much because I was really cooking for America.”

And it was exactly that sort of experience & expertise that Darden wanted to tap into when they lured Jens away from Mickey last year to become LongHorn Steakhouse’s new Vice President and Corporate Executive Chef. But today … Well, Dahlmann is offering tips to those of us who are thinking about cooking steak tips for the Fourth.

Photo by Jim Hill

“When you’re planning on grilling this holiday, if you’re looking for a successful result, the obvious place to start is with the quality of the meat you plan on cooking for your friends & family. If you want the best results here, don’t be cheap when you go shopping. Spend the money necessary for a fresh filet or a New York strip. Better yet a Ribeye, a nice thick one with good marbling. Because when you look at the marbling on a steak, that’s where all the flavor happens,” Jens explained. “That said, you always have to remember that — the higher you go with the quality of your meat — the less time you’re going to want that piece of meat to spend on the grill.”

And speaking of cooking … Before you even get started here, Jens suggests that you first take the time to check over all of your grilling equipment. Making sure that the grill itself is first scraped clean & then properly oiled before you then turn up the heat.

“If you’re working with a dirty grill, when you go to turn your meat, it may wind up sticking to the grill. Or maybe those spices that you’ve just so carefully coated your steak with will wind up sticking to the grill, rather than your meat,” Dahlmann continued. “Which is why it’s always worth it to spend a few minutes prior to firing up your grill properly cleaning & oiling it.”

Photo by Jim Hill

And speaking of heat … Again, before you officially get started grilling here, Jens says that it’s crucial to check your temperature gauges. Make sure that your char grill is set at 550 (so that it can then properly handle the thicker cuts of meat) and your flattop is set at 425 (so it can properly sear thinner pieces of meat).

Okay. Once you’ve bought the right cuts of quality meat, properly cleaned & oiled your grill, and then made sure that everything’s set at the right temperature (“If you can only stand to hold your hand directly over the grill for two or three seconds, that’s the right amount of heat,” Dahlmann said), it’s now time to season your steaks.

“Don’t be afraid to be bold here. You can’t be shy when it comes to seasoning your meat. You want to give it a nice coating. Largely because — if you’re using a char grill — a lot of that seasoning is just going to fall off anyway,” Jens stated. “It’s up to you to decide what sort of seasoning you want to use here. Even just some salt & pepper will enhance a steak’s flavor.”

Then – according to Dahlmann – comes the really tough part. Which is placing your meat on the grill and then fighting the urge to flip it too early or too often.

“The biggest mistake that a lot of amateur cooks make is that they flip the steak too many times. The real key to a well-cooked piece of meat is just let it be, “Jens insisted. “Of course, if you’re serving different cuts of meat at your Fourth of July feast, you always want to put your biggest thickest steak on the grill first. If you’re also cooking a New York Strip, you want to put that one on a few minutes later. But after that, just let the grill do its job and flip your meat a total of three or four times, once every three minutes or so.”

Of course, the last thing you want to do is overcook a quality piece of meat. Which is why Dahlmann suggests that – when it comes to grilling steaks – if you’re going to err, err on the side of undercooking.

“You can always put a piece of meat back on the grill if it’s slightly undercooked. When you over-cook something, all you can do then is start over with a brand-new piece of meat,” Jens said. “Just be sure that you’re using the correct cut of meat for the cooking result you’re aiming for. If someone wants a rare or medium rare steak, you should go with a thicker cut of steak. If one of your guests wants their steak cooked medium or well, it’s best to start with a thinner cut of meat.”

Photo by Jim Hill

As you can see, the folks at Longhorn take grilling steaks seriously. How seriously? Just last week at Darden Corporate Headquarters in Orlando, seven of these brand’s top grill masters (who – after weeks of regional competitions – had been culled from the 491 restaurants that make up this chain) competed for a $10,000 prize in the Company’s second annual Steak Master Series. And Dahlmann was one of the people who stood in Darden’s test kitchens, watching like a hawk as each of the contestants struggled to prepare six different dishes in just 20 minutes according to Longhorn Steakhouse’s exacting standards.

“I love that Darden does this. Recognizing the best of the best who work this restaurant,” Jens concluded. “We have a lot of people here who are incredibly knowledgeable & passionate when it comes to grilling.”

Speaking of which … If today’s story doesn’t include the exact piece of info that you need to properly grill that T-bone, just whip out your iPhone & text GRILL to 55702. Or – better yet – visit  ExpertGriller.com prior to firing up your grill or smoker later today. 

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Continue Reading

General

Brattleboro’s Strolling of the Heifers is a sincere if somewhat surreal way to spend a summer’s day in Vermont

Published

on

Listen to the Article

Some people travel halfway ‘around the planet so that they can then experience the excitement of the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. If you’re more of a Slow Living enthusiast (as I am), then perhaps you should amble to Brattleboro, VT. Where – over the first weekend in June – you can then join a herd of cow enthusiasts at the annual Strolling of the Heifers.

Now in its 16th year, this three-day long event typically gets underway on Friday night in June with a combination block party / gallery walk. But then – come Saturday morning – Main Street in Brattleboro is lined with thousands of bovine fans.

Photo by Jim Hill

They’ve staked out primo viewing spots and set up camp chairs hours ahead of time. Just so these folks can then have a front row seat as this year’s crop of calves (which all come from local farms & 4-H clubs) are paraded through the streets.

Photo by Jim Hill

Viewed from curbside, Strolling of the Heifers is kind of this weird melding of a sincere small town celebration and Pasadena’s Doo Dah Parade. Meaning that – for every entry that actually acknowledged this year’s theme (i.e. “Dance to the Moosic”) — …

Photo by Jim Hill

… there was something completely random, like this parade’s synchronized shopping cart unit.

Photo by Jim Hill

And for every piece of authentic Americana (EX: That collection of antique John Deere tractors that came chugging through the city) …

Photo by Jim Hill

… there was something silly. Like – say – a woman dressed as a Holstein pushing a baby stroller through the streets. And riding in that stroller was a pig dressed in a tutu.

Photo by Jim Hill

And given that this event was being staged in the Green Mountain State & all … Well, does it really surprise you to learn that — among the groups that marched in this year’s Strolling of the Heifers – was a group of eco-friendly folks who, with their  chants of “We’re Number One !,” tried to persuade people along the parade route not to flush the toilet after they pee. Because – as it turns out – urine can be turned into fertilizer.

Photo by Jim Hill

And speaking of fertilizer … At the tail end of the parade, there was a group of dedicated volunteers who were dealing with what came out of the tail end of all those cows.

Photo by Jim Hill

This year’s Strolling of the Heifers concluded at the Brattleboro town common. Where event attendees could then get a closer look at some of the featured units in this year’s parade…

Photo by Jim Hill

… or perhaps even pet a few of the participants.

Photo by Jim Hill

But as for the 90+ calves who took part in the 2017 edition of Strolling of the Heifers, once they reached the town common, it was now time for a nosh or a nap.

Photo by Jim Hill

Elsewhere on the common, keeping with this year’s “Dance to the Moosic” theme, various musical groups performed in & around the gazebo throughout the afternoon.

Photo by Jim Hill

While just across the way – keeping with Brattleboro’s tradition of showcasing the various artisans who live & work in the local community – some pretty funky pieces were on display at the Slow Living Exposition.

Photo by Jim Hill

All in all, attending Strolling of the Heifers is a somewhat surreal but still very pleasant way to spend a summer’s day in Vermont. And that’s no bull.

Photo by Jim Hill

Well, that could be a bull. To be honest, what with the wig & all, it’s kind of hard to tell. 

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Sunday, June 4, 2017

Continue Reading

General

Looking to make an authentic Irish meal for Saint Patrick’s Day? If so, then chef Kevin Dundon says not to cook corned beef & cabbage

Published

on

Listen to the Article

Let’s at least start on a positive note: Celebrated chef, author & TV personality Kevin Dundon – the man that Tourism Ireland has repeatedly chosen as the Face of Irish Food – loves a lot of what happens in the United States on March 17th.

“I mean, look at what they do in Chicago on Saint Patrick’s Day. They toss all of this vegetable-based dye into the Chicago River and then paint it green for a day. That’s terrific,” Kevin said.

But then when it comes to what many Americans eat & drink on St. Paddy’s Day (i.e., a big plate of corned beef and cabbage. Which is then washed down with a mug of green beer) … Well, that’s where Dundon has to draw the line.

Irish celebrity chef Kevin Dundon displays a traditional Irish loin of bacon with Colcannon potatoes and a Dunbrody Kiss chocolate dessert. Photo by Tom Burton. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“Green beer? No real Irishman would be caught dead drinking that stuff,” Kevin insists. “And as for eating corned beef & cabbage … That’s not actually authentic Irish fare either. Bacon and cabbage? Sure. But corned beef & cabbage was something that the Irish only began eating after they’d come to the States to escape the Famine. And even then these Irish-Americans only began serving corned beef & cabbage to their friends & family because they had to make do with the ingredients that were available to them at that time.”

And thus begins the strange tale of how corned beef & cabbage came to be associated with the North American celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day celebration. Because – according to Dundon – beef just wasn’t all that big a part of the Irish diet back in the 19th century.

To explain: Back in the Old Country, cattle – while they were obviously highly prized for the milk & cheese that they produced – were also beasts of burden. Meaning that they were often used for ploughing the fields or for hauling heavy loads. Which is why – back then — these animals were rarely slaughtered when they were still young & healthy. If anything, land owners liked to put a herd of cattle on display out in one of their pastures because that was then a sign to their neighbors that this farm was prosperous.

“Whereas pork … Well, everybody raised pigs back then. Which is why pork was a staple of the Irish diet rather than beef,” Dundon continued.

So if that’s what people actually ate back in the Old Country, how then did corned beef & cabbage come to be so strongly associated with Saint Patrick’s Day in the States.? That largely had to do with where the Irish wound up living after they arrived in the New World.

“When the Irish first arrived in America following the Great Famine, a lot of them wound up living in the inner city right alongside the Germans & the Jews, who were also recent immigrants to the States. And while that farm-fresh pork that the Irish loved wasn’t readily available, there was brisket. Which the Irish could then cure by first covering this piece of meat with corn kernel-sized pieces of rock salt – that’s how it came to be called corned beef. Because of the sizes of the pieces of rock salt that were used in the curing process – and then placing all that in a pot of water with other spices to soak for a few days.”

And as for the cabbage portion of corned beef & cabbage … Well, according to Kevin, in addition to buying their meat from the kosher delis in their neighborhood, the Irish would also frequent the stores that the German community shopped in. Where – thanks to their love of sauerkraut (i.e., pickled cabbage) – there was always a ready supply of cabbage to be had.

“So when you get right down to it, it was the American melting pot that led to corned beef & cabbage being found in the Irish-American cooking pot,” Dundon continued. “Since they couldn’t find or didn’t have easy access to the exact same ingredients that they had back in Ireland, Irish-Americans made do with what they could find in the immediate vicinity. And what they made was admittedly tasty. But it’s not actually authentic Irish fare.”

Mind you, what Kevin serves at Raglan Road Irish Pub and Restaurant at Disney Springs (which – FYI – Orlando Magazine voted as the area’s best restaurant back in 2014) is nothing if not authentic. Dundon and his team at this acclaimed gastropub pride themselves on making traditional Irish fare and then contemporized it.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“Take – for example – what we serve here instead of corned beef & cabbage. Again, because it was pork – rather than beef – that was the true staple of the Irish diet back then, what we offer instead is a loin of bacon that has been glazed with Irish Mist. That then comes with colcannon potatoes. Which is this traditional Irish dish that’s made up of mashed potato that have had some cabbage & bacon mixed through it,” Kevin enthused. “This heavenly ham – that’s what we actually call this traditional Irish dish at Raglan Road, Kevin’s Heavenly Ham – also includes some savory cabbage with a parsley cream sauce as well as a raisin cider jus. It’s simple food. But because of the basic ingredients – and that’s the real secret of Irish cuisine. That our ingredients are so strong – the flavors just pop off the plate.”

Which brings us to the real challenge that Dundon and the Raglan Road team face every day. Making sure that they actually have all of the ingredients necessary to make this traditional-yet-contemporized Irish fare to those folks who frequent this Walt Disney World favorite.

“Take – for example – the fish we serve here. We only used cold water fish. Salmon, mussels and haddock that have been hauled out of the Atlantic, the ocean that America and Ireland share,” Kevin stated. “Not that there’s anything wrong with warm water fish. It’s just that … Well, it doesn’t have the same structure. It’s a softer fish, which doesn’t really fit the parameters of Irish cuisine. And if you’re going to serve authentic food, you have to be this dedicated when it comes to sourcing your ingredients.

Copyright Mitchell Beazley. All rights reserved

And if you’re thinking of perhaps trying to serve an authentic Irish meal this year, rather than once again serving corned beef & cabbage at your Saint Patrick’s Day Feast … Well, back in September of last year, Mitchell Beazley published “The Raglan Road Cookbook: Inside America’s Favorite Irish Pub.” This 296-page hardcover not only includes the recipe for Kevin’s Heavenly Ham but also it tells the tale of how this now-world-renown restaurant wound up being built in Orlando.

On the other hand, if you happen to have to the luck of the Irish and are actually down at The Walt Disney World Resort right now, it’s worth noting that Raglan Road is right in the middle of its Mighty St. Patrick’s Day Festival. This four day-long event – which includes Irish bands and professional dancers – stretches through Sunday night. And in addition to all that authentic Irish fare that Dundon and his team are cooking up, you also sample the fine selection of beers & cocktails that this establishment’s four distinct antique bars (each of which are more than 130 years old and were imported directly from Ireland) will be serving. Just – As ucht Dé (That’s “For God’s Sake” in Gaelic) – don’t make the mistake of asking the bartender there for a mug of green beer.

“Why would anyone willingly drink something like that?,” Dundon laughed. “I mean, just imagine what their washroom will look like the morning after.”

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Friday, March 17, 2017

Continue Reading

Trending